I received this astonishing poem in the mail, along with a letter from the author, Robin Standish, in 2005. Unfortunately, it got lost in the pile of papers on my desk. A couple of weeks ago, I was cleaning up (finally), and came across it. I can’t tell you how moved I was, how blown away by what Standish captured, about early sibling loss.
Standish was 7 when her 2-year-old brother, George, died of leukemia. She didn’t even know he was sick. Or rather, her parents had neglected to define what was wrong with him. She assumed, as she writes in her poem, that he had “some ordinary illness”—chicken pox, measles. One day, she woke up, and he was gone. Standish was 68 at the time she wrote her letter, enclosing the poems.
Sibling loss, sadly, is a life-long experience.
I contacted Standish as soon as I read the poem. The poem is going to be published in the fall, along with some others, by Writers’ Workshop India. I can’t wait to see what else she’s written. Meanwhile, she’s kindly allowed me to “publish” the poem that caught my attention here.
for George William Dickerson, 1941-1943
Already in the sepia photograph
you can tell–
something is wrong.
The house with its prim shutters,
its windows of repeating panes,
seems not to know yet;
or, perhaps, just as a house
contains old secrets, it could hold
events about to come.
Surely I don’t know, standing there
in my starched pinafore,
smiling feckless into the sun.
Only my brother knows
he will not live. The angled planes
of his once-round face reveal it,
and his eyes, not focused
in this world, already
explore the next.
The angel of remission held him
long enough for our father to take the picture
and a few weeks more, but only that.
Then Little Bud,
the aspiring botanist’s son,
III. New Theology
Please, God, I’d prayed,
bring me a brother or a sister,
I didn’t care which, my craving
the sign of oblique knowing:
in this family, I’d need an ally
to traverse the jarring cleft
between what I experienced
and what I was told.
My prayer appeared to be imperfectly
constructed, like a fairy tale wish;
I’d pleaded only for a sibling’s birth,
neglecting to say I wanted him to live.
Such a belief implies a capricious
and mean-spirited god, a powerful
but loveless god– a prospect
too alarming to embrace;
believing in no god at all
was prefereable to this.
Then I saw my proposition
had been backwards:
An infinately wise and loving Guide
depends on us to repair the world.
No simple intervention will right
our grave mistakes.
Our hands, our heartminds
are God’s only implementing tools.
The work is ours.
No one tells me your white corpuscles
are multiplying exponentially, that leukemia
will overtake you this night or the next,
so I idly sip milk and read to you,
the story of a doll who lives a hundred years.
I rock in the chair beside your bed, believing
you have some ordinary illness, like chicken pox,
and you’ll wake tomorrow with nothing more
to show for your distress than a few round scars,
like mine, crinkled at the edges.
Next morning I find your bed empty,
the blue quilt thrown back, knotted, cold.
They can do this, then, our parents,
conceal death, make you vanish,
prevent us even from saying goodbye.
To think that I had trusted the simplicity of sleep,
A zeal to call my brother back compels me.
I want to wake him, force him
out of his image in the picture, alive.
I scream and scream, but no sound comes.
I conjure desperate beliefs:
surely Dad’s elaborate new camera has the power
that together with my will, can sustain the person
held in the image, draw him forth, back into the world.
Didn’t my brother always reappear among
the garden shrubs when we played hide and seek ?
If the photo, once concealed in its envelope
is now in my hand, then surely
my brother must be somewhere, too,
hidden in the drawer of the great walnut bureau,
or sleeping peacefully among the fragrant linens
of the cedar chest.
Although I breathe in deeply, scents
of lavender and cedar hang in the empty air.
A sense of ultimate powerlessness
creeps over me, numbs me
from my toes up, as if I also vanish,
or become a kind of ghost myself,
transparent, something else
our parents have disappeared,
or at least forgotten
in their overwhelming grief.
If my family does not notice me, do I exist?
If my brother is no longer here, can I join him?
How to survive the secrets of that perfect-looking house,
the only child they have left?
Brother, spirit guide, witness
while I labor
to unwrap the secrets,
lay them bare, reclaim you
and the lost parts of myself.
You are my Plato, urging me
out of the cave with your sweet,
pragmatic song as I stumble, wincing